Any attempt at explaining the attraction of exiting a perfectly serviceable aircraft to trust your life to some fabric and string is certain to result in looks of incredulity from the majority of people who think skydiving is a bad idea. Perhaps, though, they should ask Felix Baumgartner.
Describing sport parachuting to a non-practitioner is a little like describing sex to a life-long celibate. Theoretically implausible, unpleasant and almost certainly dangerous, any sane carbon based life form would be wise to avoid both activities. However, in the flush of foolish youth, your humble correspondent clambered into a rickety Cessna and after affixing a static line to, of all things, the seat that the pilot sat in, embarked on more aircraft take-offs than landings. These were days long before “buddy jumps” and tandem descents and would-be Sky Gods had to undertake rigorous ground training, theory tests and the necessity to provide a note from your mum saying it was okay for her only son to throw himself out of an aircraft at two and a half thousand feet. The category system then used by the British Parachute Association set clear and observable criteria before skydivers could progress to freefall. Three consecutive stable static line deployments followed by three consecutive static line “dummy pulls” would allow the student a three second freefall during which the thrill seeker would be allowed to actually pull a rip cord and open a parachute
Only when the aspiring Icarus displayed the competence of the basics, was he or she allowed to progress to terminal velocity which, at about 10 metres per second squared, equates to around 120 mph and takes about 10 seconds to achieve. Only then can the human body perform some modicum of control as terra firma beckons. Landings, however, proved to be a different kettle of fish to a descending whale and possible pot of geraniums. Under a 28 foot canopy and being a large person, landings always, always hurt. The very first descent resulted in a broken toe not discovered until 12 hours later when the boot came off during a preamble to passion in a nice room in a seedy student house after a rather pleasant party. The instructor noted in my log book that I had “landed like a sack of spuds”. Later entries from instructors described the preferred points of contact for a parachute landing fall as “side of foot, calf, thigh, small of back and opposite shoulder”. My instructor entered “Heels, Arse, Head, Hospital.” Something had to be done so I took to landing behind a row of trees unobserved where I could deflate the canopy by pulling the back risers at about 100 feet before touch-down. Make a mistake and you break your spine, get it wrong and you die. Instead of correctly entering “wrong field” in the log book, the instructor entered “wrong county.” I scrimped and saved and finally managed to purchase a 34 foot low porosity cargo parachute with double L modifications which prevented further breakages. The landings still hurt so it was imperative that I should progress to a square ram air canopy that allowed stand up landings.
By this stage, I had achieved Category 8 and was allowed to self spot and undertake relative work in the skies above Shropshire. Relative work is when parachutists link up in the sky and grab hold of each others` arms, grin inanely and give a stupid “thumbs up” as they track away to deploy their parachutes. As part of a relative team known initially as “Two pints of lager, a pint of Guinness and a half of bitter shandy please”, we were spectacular failures. Being the biggest, my role was to “fly base” and remain in a stable spread position in an inflated flight suit and wait for the others to catch me up. It never worked. With the popularity of the Muppet Show, the fat man relative team changed their name to “Pigs in Space” and clinging to various parts of a succession of aircraft would utter this war cry as we threw ourselves at the planet. The name change was unsuccessful and we never, ever managed to recreate the shape of the Starship Enterprise. Flying a square canopy, however, was a joy and proved to be a blessing to the bone setters in a variety of hospitals.
There was, in a barren, deserted airfield at Tilstock near Whitchurch, a rather lovely Cessna 182 that had an engraved plaque that read: “Beware thine altitude, lest the ground riseth up and smitheth thee”. The plague was affixed to the dashboard of the aircraft and was the last thing the parachutist saw before exit. Wise words. On one occasion the same Cessna suffered an engine failure and it became necessary for the parachutists to leave immediately. This was not due to self preservation, but was intended to allow the pilot to glide back to the airfield without additional payload. As I left the aircraft, I told the pilot that once I had landed I would phone the RAC. He looked less than impressed but, fortunately, we all lived to another day.
I gave up parachuting because I had ticked that particular box. The gallows humour, the macho posturing and the butch testosterone had become boring. It is not brave to leave an aircraft, it is not brave to play rugby or be a politician. What is brave is to go to the edge of space and jump off. Felix Baumgartner has achieved something remarkable, something that defines human endeavour and something that we should celebrate.
His descent, after all, lasted a lot longer than sex.